Wanted: Dirt, plants and gardeners at Vermont Square


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Community gardens dispatch No. 30: Vermont Square

Vermont Square is a place that deserves a big group hug from L.A. gardeners. Since founder Helen Johnson died a few years ago, twin gardens straddling the 4700 block of traffic-clogged Vermont Avenue south of USC have struggled.


L.A. community gardens often have a finite existence. Leases usually last just a few years, and gardeners seem to face the perpetual threat of an owner taking back the land and tearing up years-old artichoke and asparagus, fruit trees and natives.

This place should be different -- easier. Working with the Los Angeles Community Garden Council, of which she was one of the organizers, Johnson founded the community garden on an 8,000-square-foot property that once was a Red Car trolley right-of-way. With $80,000 from the S. Mark Taper Foundation, Johnson’s group bought the land for $58,000 from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 2002. It was the first community garden to be owned by the group tending it. More than 30 of Johnson’s neighbors, all 55 or older, helped to build the plots, plant trees and maintain the gardens, situated a few blocks from where the 1992 riots raged.

“Helen recruited a lot of beautiful old ladies to be gardeners there,” said Glen Dake of the garden council. “When she passed away, there was a huge void.”

Tamiko Nakamoto arrived in 2009, and only eight members remained. No planting beds were available, so she built hers out of redwood. After taking the UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardener class, she became head of the garden “by default,’ said Nakamoto, pictured at the top of the post. ‘I have a car, a cellphone and email.” The number of gardeners has grown to 12. Most are elderly and rely on public transportation. Nakamoto, who was away from the garden since early March for health reasons, is back now. She used a cane to point out some of the oddities she has planted in the long communal bed: goji berry, garden sorrel, pigeon peas, 10 types of sage -- all planted on land with an upholstery shop and recycling center just on the other side of the fence.

‘I’ve always liked to experiment with plants not normally seen in gardens,” she said. “It’s hard to weed this section because it’s hard to know what’s what.”

Makadu DeBeet, above right, a Virgin Islands native who sports 42-year-old dreadlocks, has gardened here for decades, back to when it was an unnamed field. He grows too many tomatoes, he said, so he gives most away.

Fannie King, right, also a longtime gardener, stands over her neat beds, leaning on a cane while deciding which of the cabbage heads she’ll harvest for her neighbor. She looks toward where her okra shoots used to be, a few days ago, before the snails arrived.

“If only we could get enough young people in here, people interested in gardening,’ she said.

Vermont Square has had a lot of ups and downs, Dake said, but he pointed out one bright spot: beds for Manual Arts High School students on the eastern side of the garden, part of an effort to get younger people involved.

But forget the group hug. Think dirt. The garden badly needs it here. Along with some mulch, a few new compost bins and some strong backs.


Long Beach gardeners grow for a cause

Long Beach rules -- at least follows them

The surprise of Wrigley Village

-- Jeff Spurrier

From left, King, Takamoto and DeBeet in the gazebo at the Vermont Square Community Garden.

Sidewalk outside the garden, blooming bougainvillea hints at the life that lies behind the chain link.

Dispatches from community gardens appear here every Wednesday. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page dedicated to gardening in the West.